Heads turn as Georgina Beyer strides into a coffee bar in central Sydney in a flurry of red cashmere and clunking gold jewellery. A tall, striking figure, she looks glamorous in a buttoned-up sort of way – a schizophrenic exterior that matches her colourful life story.
Beyer, who started out as a Maori boy called George, is the world's first transsexual MP. A former drag queen, nightclub stripper and male prostitute, she was elected to the New Zealand parliament in 1999. At the insistence of her own voters, she will be standing for re-election a week on Saturday when the country goes to the polls once again.
The voyage from red-light district to the corridors of power is remarkable enough, but 44-year-old Beyer does not represent a trendy Wellington electorate where anything goes. Her constituents are the redneck farmers of Wairarapa, in New Zealand's rural heartland, a largely white area that was a rock-solid conservative seat until she won it for Labour.
Against all odds, and overturning many a stereotype en route, she has managed to charm the rough-mannered farming folk and establish herself as a respected politician. "This was an incredibly traditional community that was able to look beyond society's strict conventions and give me a chance," says Beyer, in Sydney for a screening of a documentary about her life at the city's recent film festival.
From the early days, growing up on her grandparents' farm, Beyer knew she wanted to be a girl. "I always looked quite feminine, and in puberty I was a late developer," she says. "I once took the day off school and went into town to see a movie dressed as a woman. I still remember the thrill of it."
The ambivalence towards her own body crystallised when she saw her first drag show in her late teens. "I was totally blown away. It was the first time I had ever clapped eyes on transgender people. I didn't even know that culture existed. It was as if I'd arrived home. I had seen the light."
Beyer began working in the Wellington nightclub scene, first as a singer and exotic dancer, then as a drag queen and stripper. It was a career that led to prostitution and to situations fraught with danger. She was jailed for soliciting and, during a visit to Sydney, was raped and beaten up by four men. It was an experience that she describes as a defining moment; her self-esteem was so low that she did not even report the crime.
Her clients did not always get the upper hand, as she relates in the documentary, Georgie Girl. Once she took home a truckdriver who held a knife to her throat to scare her. When he emerged after having a shower, she and her flatmate gave him a hiding and threw him naked down the stairs, tossing his truck keys after him.
Such experiences stood Beyer in good stead when, in her later incarnation as an MP, she made an eloquent plea for reform of the laws on prostitution. She recalls the precise words with which she prefaced her contribution to a parliamentary debate: "Madam Speaker, I shall take the liberty of assuming that I am the only member of this House with first-hand knowledge of the sex industry." No one contradicted her.
Back then, drugs helped to blur the misery of prostitution, and the earnings enabled Beyer to fund a sex-change operation in 1984. From then on, she could confidently pursue life as a woman. She upped sticks to Auckland and became an acclaimed film and television actress, but eventually grew disillusioned with being typecast as a drag queen or lady of the night.
With her life at a crossroads, she decided to move to Carterton – a country town in the middle of Wairarapa – and retrain as a youth social worker. Her arrival in 1990 caused quite a stir, although she had toned down her appearance in deference to rural sensibilities. "She was quite controversial, just walking down the street," says one elderly resident. "It was a whole new ball game for Carterton."
Beyer, whose warmth and engaging nature must have eased her path, recalls – with an arch raise of one eyebrow – that her presence was "quite educational" for the town's youth. "Children would say to me, 'Are you that queer that's moved into town?' I would say 'Yes, I'm a transsexual. I used to be a man, but I'm a woman now.'"
Three years after she arrived in Carterton, colleagues persuaded her to stand for the local council. She narrowly missed out, but won a seat in a subsequent by-election. Archival footage in the documentary shows her being sworn in as a clutch of men stand grim-faced in the background.
Teeth were gnashed in some quarters, but two years later Beyer was elected as Carterton's mayor, having funded her campaign by taking a role as a transsexual sheep-shearer in a play in Auckland. The campaign attracted intense media attention, with Beyer grilled incessantly about her private life. "Did it feel very different for you, having sex as a woman?" asked one interviewer. "Yes," she replied, simply.
Beyer was approached by Helen Clark's Labour Party and agreed to stand for parliament, although Wairarapa – long a stronghold of the conservative National Party – appeared an unwinnable seat. The National candidate Paul Henry ran a campaign based on family values and, in one memorable interview, declared: "In my life, I've done a great many interesting things, though it's true to say I am still male. You say Georgina is a serious person. Well, she's a transsexual. Do the two things necessarily go together?"
The remarks provoked a backlash that contributed to Beyer's landslide win, an extraordinary result that was testament to her ability to win hearts and dissolve prejudice. "People said, 'She's genuine and hard-working, let's give her a go'," she says. "They elected me on the basis of knowing what I was, and my mandate comes from people who don't give a stuff."
As an MP, Beyer has remained passionate about transsexual rights. Being trapped in the wrong body is "soul-destroying and stunts human potential", she says, forcing people "to live a half-life, in this terrible situation betwixt and between". She recalls meeting an 80-year-old retired doctor in a small country town while performing in a travelling drag show in the South Island. "He came up and said how much he liked the show and how he wished he could be like us. His wife had died, his children had grown up, and he was contemplating at his age having a sex change." She pushes away her cup of tea and removes her large gold-rimmed glasses. Tears roll down her face.
Beyer has sought to be an advocate both for her constituents and for the gay and transsexual communities – a dual loyalty somewhat resented by each side. She might judge a sheep show one day, march in a gay pride parade the next. Last year, exhausted and stressed, she said she would not stand for parliament again. There were howls of protest in Carterton and, after a few months of reflection, she changed her mind.
The voters are delighted. "She's a go-getter and a good chap," says one old farmer, who voted Labour for the first time in 1999. Another local says: "She stands and listens to you, even if you're just off the street. She can mix it with everyone, from top to bottom. People round here think she's one of us."Reuse content